I love watching those old movies where something important happens, something momentous even, and suddenly everyone knows about it pretty much instantly. How, you ask, is this possible? The news kid, that's how. One scene change later, some kid with a dirty face appears brandishing a large bag filled with newspapers, waving copies in his equally dirty hands while yelling, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" Even in this age of networked systems and high-speed Internet access, it's pretty hard to compete with that kind of service. At least, it used to be . . . .
Imagine for a moment that your favorite news source releases a new story, something you definitely want to keep on top of. You don't have time to go looking at all those news sources, blogs, and other dynamic information sites. How do you get that dirty-faced kid to make an appearance with a copy?
That's the function of a news aggregator program. You give the program a list of sites that you want monitored for changes, and it does the collecting for you. No need to visit all those sites looking for the latest information—just look in the list and you'll find it there waiting for you, like that little kid, waving the paper in his hand. Aggregators do this by subscribing to RSS or Atom newsfeeds. RSS stands for Real Simple Syndication, the actual feed language. Atom is another XML-based feed language, originally started to deal with incompatibilities in RSS where multiple, incompatible, versions exist.
Firefox, Collect My News, Please
Many people out there already have a news aggregator, though they might not even know it. I'm not talking about some hidden program you don't know you have, but your favorite web browser, Firefox.
Visit a page where an RSS or Atom newsfeed exists. This could be your favorite tech news website or blog (you can use my website at http://www.marcelgagne.com for a test, if you'd like). You'll know that a feed is available by looking in the lower-right corner of the Firefox window: You'll see a small icon there. Hover your mouse pointer over it, and a ToolTip will appear with the words "Add Live Bookmark for this page's feed."
Figure 1 It's easy to monitor a feed inside Firefox: Just click the Add Live Bookmark icon.
Click the icon to see a small pop-up message window offering you the option of subscribing to that feed. Click the message window to accept the subscription; the Firefox Add Bookmark dialog box appears (see Figure 2). The Name field has have the feed's name as provided by the site, but you can override that by entering whatever you would like here. Below that is a drop-down list labeled Create In; the default is your Bookmarks folder. You can accept the default, add it to your toolbar, or create a new folder specifically for your newsfeeds.
Figure 2 The next step is to tell Firefox where you want to store your bookmark.
That's it. When you click on that bookmark, a list of the current postings relating to that feed appears. Two options are open to you at this point. The first is simple: You can click on the story that interests you, and it will open in your browser (the number of items in the list will vary, depending on the site). There's also a second option at the bottom of the list, labeled Open in Tabs. Choosing this option opens one Firefox browsing tab for each of the stories.